The Unfiltered Mick Rock


There was no shortage of remarkable artwork up for auction at last night’s benefit for the Lunchbox Fund, a charity dedicated to providing food to children in the poorest areas of South Africa: Shepard Fairey, Chuck Close, Michael Stipe, Oliver Clegg, and many other artists donated pieces for the event, which was co-chaired by Casey Affleck, Liv Tyler, Mario Batali, and Maggie Gyllenhaal. The one that immediately caught our attention, though, was a copy of the unmistakable Mick Rock-shot cover of Lou Reed’s 1973 Transformer, signed by both Reed and Rock.

When we ran into Rock later, he explained that the photo’s inclusion in the auction was especially timely—last week, he and Reed released a limited-edition book of photos, also titled Transformer. We sat down to chat with the extremely affable Rock amidst the chatter of the party and a flurry of waitresses bearing hors d’oeuvres.

MICK ROCK: I’ve been shooting all day.

ALEXANDRIA SYMONDS: What are you shooting right now?

ROCK: I shot a lady named Cory Kennedy.

SYMONDS: Oh, everyone knows Cory Kennedy.

ROCK: She’s very blonde at the moment. [gestures to a tray of hors d’oeuvres] What’s going on over there? Are they sweet?

SYMONDS: They’re not sweet, they’re Cantonese spring rolls.

ROCK: What’s in them?

SYMONDS: They’ve got some chicken and stuff in them. Are you a vegetarian?

ROCK: Yeah. So what do you want to know, and who is this for?

SYMONDS: Interview.

ROCK: Oh, Interview. Yeah, they’ve been around a year or two.

SYMONDS: Transformer‘s one of my favorite albums.

ROCK: Oh, yeah, a masterpiece.

SYMONDS: My favorite thing that’s happened tonight is being right up close and seeing it with your signature on it.

ROCK: Well, you know, we’ve got this great new book with Genesis Publications.

SYMONDS: I did not.

ROCK: Go online and check it out. Pictures of Lou in the ’70s. It’s in John Varvatos; they’re a limited edition. It’s a beautiful book, they’re all signed by me and Lou.

SYMONDS: When you have an image that you’ve taken that becomes that iconic—

ROCK: I have a lot of them. That’s just one of many!

SYMONDS: I know you do! Do you get sick of looking them over and over?

ROCK: No, I don’t get sick of fucking looking at them, I take the money.

SYMONDS: But clearly, you’ve seen that image so many times, has it lost potency for you at all?

ROCK: No, I love it, and I love Lou, and it’s fabulous. It’s not going to go away, even if I want it to, so I learn to love it. It’s Lou! It’s my mate Lou! He’s somebody I’ve always had deep respect and love for, for over 40 years—through all kinds of lunacy, but somehow we maintain respect. I don’t know, we’re mates.

ROCK: [to waitress] What is that?

WAITRESS: Spicy rock shrimp!

ROCK: Nope, nope! [to Symonds] I don’t like it. I eat regular fish. I’ll eat salmon and tuna. I’m very picky.

SYMONDS: I think a lot of people try, with varying degrees of success, to recapture the feeling of the Lower East Side in the ’70s.

ROCK: Well, I don’t know if they—I can’t even think about it. I did London as well as the Lower East Side! [to waitress] What is it?

WAITRESS: General Tso’s dumplings.

ROCK: What does that mean?

WAITRESS: Chicken dumplings.

ROCK: Oh, no, not for me. I do the edamame, that’s what I do.

WAITRESS: Yeah, those are amazing.

ROCK: What’s that over there?

WAITRESS: That’s the Cantonese spring roll—shrimp and chicken.

ROCK: Oh, no, that’s not going to work. The edamame! [to Symonds] So, yes.

SYMONDS: Are there any photographers who are up-and-coming that you think are getting at taking pictures in the same spirit that you were in the ’70s?

ROCK: Well, it’s a different time. You can’t recreate times. I mean, you can do pastiches, and that can be fabulous too. I’m not knocking anything. But you can’t recreate that time and spirit. You’ve got to remember what was going on in the culture in general. After the hippie and the sex revolution. A lot of these things that you take for granted now, it was there, and a lot of people were upset about what was going on. So it was much more exciting. I know they try to do a little shock value today, but it’s hard, really. It’s very hard to shock people today. I mean, I suppose you can, if you go ugly and gruesome, but I’m not really into that. You want to shock people with a bit of mystery and beauty. That’s my favorite kind of shocking. And it doesn’t have to not have any clothes on either. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, but that’s not an essential ingredient. It could be just a great face. Whatever it is, just boring day-to-day things. I’m not really a photographer—I make images. Do you want to know the truth? I don’t really look at magazines.

SYMONDS: What do you think about the CBGB movie that’s coming out?

ROCK: I haven’t seen it. All I know is, they’re not as beautiful. Even though [Taylor Hawkins] is a very nice man, from the Foo Fighters, who plays an Iggy character. But the girl, with all due respect, and I’m not knocking her, the actor, I’m just looking at her—

SYMONDS: Malin Akerman? 

ROCK: Debbie was so amazing. How are you going to get a face like that? That’s a face that’s great—especially in that period. Think of any modern movie star that looked the way she looked. I mean, there aren’t any. Not saying they’re not fabulous actresses. Scarlet Johansson is a beautiful lady, but not Debbie Harry. But you can’t knock anybody for that. And how do you recreate Iggy Pop?

SYMONDS: I think the whole point of Iggy Pop is that you can’t—it’s impossible.

ROCK: But I haven’t seen it. And if I did see it, I’d probably wouldn’t say much about it, because… “Mick Rock says it’s horrible.” Well, what do I know? I know what I know. I wouldn’t say it’s horrible anyway, even if I did think it wasn’t very clever.

SYMONDS: So who is exciting to you right now? Not just photographers, in any area.

ROCK: Well I still love Karen O, who is a good friend of mine. And I love Janelle Monáe.

SYMONDS: She is beyond. I think that we’re not ready for Janelle Monáe. I think in five years we’re all going to realize how wonderful she is.

ROCK: They are in Europe, they’ve been embracing her in Europe for a while.

SYMONDS: What do you like about her?

ROCK: The pure undiluted talent. Who’s entertaining? Miley Cyrus. I think, “Go for it, Miley!” Why not? She’s just repeating Madonna or GaGa, why not? At least she’s got a nice little body, so she can play with that. Would I love if my daughter were doing that? I might not have any say in it! No, I like her general character. Haven’t got a clue what her music sounds like.

SYMONDS: [laughs] Her music’s incredible.

ROCK: But does it matter anymore? I don’t know how much it matters. It used to be that images were like a visual track to sound. Now sound is like a soundtrack to visual stuff. That’s why photographers, like me, get a lot more attention and play than we ever did 30 or 40 years ago. It wasn’t such a visual universe. But the Internet busted that wide open—smashed it. It’s really about the Internet. I mean, is it about magazines? Well, a bit. But many more people see the shit on the Internet anyway. And guess what? I do not think people are influenced by advertising. I mean, maybe some, up on Fifth Avenue, might be influenced by something they see in a magazine. But young people, they want to see it on the Internet. They don’t give a fuck what some magazine says. And I’m sure Interview has a big Internet presence.

SYMONDS: I’m the online editor.

ROCK: Yeah, well, you actually have the most important job there.

SYMONDS: Thank you, I’ll tell my boss [laughs].

ROCK: The thing is, how old are you?

SYMONDS: I’m 24.

ROCK: Twenty-four? Well, that’s the right age for that. My daughter deals with new media over at the SoHo Grand and Tribeca Grand. Her name’s Natalie and she’s 23. And you can’t give her a picture, send it on your phone, because two and a half minutes later it’ll be all over the Internet. And what I like about cell phones, once I got over the fact that they weren’t really a camera-camera—I used to be like, “No, I’m not using that.” But once that really clicked, that you could take it and send it to someone—it’s a good way of communicating, the photo. Me, I text all the time. I don’t go on Facebook or anything like that. Somebody does it for me, but I have no clue what goes on. I never look. Never.